Best of Phoenix

The Best Things Our Food Critic Ate in 2020

A plate of Ropa Vieja from Fe La Cubana.
A plate of Ropa Vieja from Fe La Cubana. Chris Malloy
Our strange year saw me, and maybe you, eating most of my restaurant meals at home. I also ate them in parks when the sun let me. A few times, facing a long drive back to my house, swayed by aromas and the desire to taste food when hot and fresh and still retaining its pre-takeout textures, I even inhaled a pizza slice and arepa in my car.

That’s far from ideal. But so was 2020.

This year, I was drawn to comfort food, to traditional dishes that provided a simple lift. For me, it was all about those old-school meals, the ones that tunneled into my memory or somebody else’s, with a few key exceptions. For that reason, this list might be more personal than others. For 2020, these dishes were my 10 favorites.

Ropa Vieja

Fe La Cubana
5821 North 67th Avenue, #110, Glendale

My first bite of Fe La Cubana's ropa vieja, melting beef forked up from a compact tangle mounded in scarlet juices, teleported me back to Hudson County, New Jersey, an enclave of Cuban food that I lived in for seven years. My meal had been ladled from a warm tin under the Spanish of a TV filtering over this small, proud Cuban cafeteria. Just a few tables. Simple white plates heaped with rice, beans, and meats. A few taxi drivers come at the lunch hour, always a promising sign. This hot, red-pepper-flecked ropa vieja walked a line as fine as each violin string of stewed beef: intensely rich, yet light and touched with just enough garlic.


The old location of Tratto before it was relocated to the former Pane Bianco Van Buran spot. - CHRIS MALLOY
The old location of Tratto before it was relocated to the former Pane Bianco Van Buran spot.
Chris Malloy

Cacio e Pepe

Tratto
1505 East Van Buren Street

Cassie Shortino cooks a lot of great food and a lot of great pasta dishes, but none of them beat her cacio e pepe. At the old Tratto, where I had my last meal out with my family before March’s shutdown, eaten on the patio with cocktails and sun, this was an off-menu item. It is a Roman classic, classically minimal, nothing but pasta and black pepper and sheep’s milk cheese. At Tratto, a plate of coiled long-strand pasta, noodles adeptly crafted and cooked to retain a hearty chew, arrive both fused with and dripping that simple peppery melted cheese. Her best pasta, and also, I believe, the Valley’s.

click to enlarge Chef Sasha Levine's reimagined beef cheek Wellington. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Chef Sasha Levine's reimagined beef cheek Wellington.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Beef Wellington

Century Grand
3626 East Indian School Road

We arrive to an inevitable portion of this list: to a kitchen that has now closed. (Note: the varied bars of Barter and Shake Hospitality remain open.) Former Century Grand Chef Sacha Levine, wherever she’s cooking, provides a portal to lush, colorful, vibrantly original flavor worlds. With her pedal-down riff on beef Wellington, she took eaters back to a stodgy classic, yes, but also hurtling ahead. She edits ratios, swaps ingredients: the puff pastry shrinks in relation to the beef, which morphs to beef cheek jolted with pork jus. With the help of meaty mushrooms, the dish sucked you down a joyous black hole of umami.

click to enlarge Bite, at least once, into this drippy cabeza totally naked. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Bite, at least once, into this drippy cabeza totally naked.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Cabeza Taco

Taco Boy’s
620 East Roosevelt Street

My advice to you upon entering Taco Boy’s is to greedily inhale but remain unswayed by the aroma of grilling steak and mesquite charcoal pouring from the grates. Or at least to look beyond carne asada for part of your meal. Juan Cornejo and Juan Cornejo Jr. rock out other dishes as well. In my mind, cabeza is the top meat at this new-classic taqueria. Drippy slips of beef check (“the filet mignon of the head,” Juan Jr. says) collapse into heady tenderness during a five-hour stewing. This fatty meat is made for the leaf-thin, griddle-warmed flour tortillas the father-son team drives up from Sonora.

click to enlarge These noodles have more color than most in town. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
These noodles have more color than most in town.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Wok-fried Chow Mein

Sherpa Kitchen

Though now closed, Sherpa Kitchen was my favorite new restaurant of 2020. Subash and Chandra Yadav had a great thing, and, luckily, they have a new related Nepalese venture cooking. Subash’s wok-fried chow mean was briefly iconic. A mound of udon noodles cooked to leave good bite came accented with more kinds and colors of hyperlocal vegetables than I could track. The heat of these noodles had rare finesse: strong but agile and fruity, balanced, propelling but also anchoring the noodles enough for you to savor the freshness of the purple cabbage, red pepper, many kinds of carrots, and more.

click to enlarge Meatwala delivery destined for very hot grill grates. - CHRIS MALLOY
Meatwala delivery destined for very hot grill grates.
Chris Malloy

Chicken Malai and Hariyali

Meatwala PHX

In summer, former Blue Hound chef Dushyant Singh called a pandemic audible, pivoting to a home delivery business of Indian meats. When you order Meatwalla, you get a ready-to-grill package of chicken thighs, beef kebabs, and/or lamb. With these, you can include sides like daal and pickled red onions. On the night I ordered a package, I fired up my grill and got busy. Singh’s yogurt-based marinades are forgiving. I may have overcooked my chickens some, but every succulent bite rippled with the flavor of the animal, the particular cut, Singh’s sharp-but-round aromatics, and his ground, toasted spices.

click to enlarge The chachapa at Que Chevere in downtown Mesa. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The chachapa at Que Chevere in downtown Mesa.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Cachapa

Que Chevere
142 West Main Street, Mesa

The above picture shows Que Chevere’s cachapa stuffed with beef. I prefer this stellar corn pancake without the meat. Ordering it plain gives you an unmitigated feeling for how much magic is in the subtle interplay of corn, milk, and cheese. The lightly sweet pancake takes the shape of an omelet, thick, folded, and spilling melted cheese. Made from milk, both cornmeal and fresh corn, and flour, the pancake packs layers and layers of corn, its earthiness muted, its sweet fragrances lengthened and merged with those of the milk. Major bonus: There's creamy melted queso mano in almost every bite.

click to enlarge The Kaeng Hang Lay from Alex and Yotaka Martin’s Lom Wong pop-up. - LOM WONG
The Kaeng Hang Lay from Alex and Yotaka Martin’s Lom Wong pop-up.
Lom Wong

Kaeng Hang Lay

Lom Wong

In the world of pop-up takeout, you can't do better than Alex and Yotaka Martin’s Lom Wong. The two center the unfiltered flavors of Thailand’s regions, often those of its north, and usually featuring ingredients and/or dishes hard-to-impossible to find elsewhere in the Valley. Their Kaeng Hang Lay is astounding. Pork belly hunks have so much aromatic zap they almost slap your head sideways. The dish is endlessly rich with a galaxy of fragrant botanicals and the soulful leakings of pork fat. Martin spent hours grinding the dish's chile paste — just one of its many components. Others include ginger, tamarind, and fermented garlic, all melding into a piercing song of a faraway place.

click to enlarge Eating your mutton sandwich in the grass with an iced jar of Sedona sunset ... a very good idea. - CHRIS MALLOY
Eating your mutton sandwich in the grass with an iced jar of Sedona sunset ... a very good idea.
Chris Malloy

Mutton Sandwich

Emerson Fry Bread

In the early days of the pandemic, the food truck Emerson Fry Bread ditched its wandering to park regularly by Phoenix Indian Medical Center. And so it began to amass a cult following for its new Navajo mutton sandwich, made by operators Loren Emerson and Roxanne Wilson, the latter Diné. They build it on a lumpy tan pillow of warm, unfolded frybread. Grilled mutton goes on next — seasoned with nada but salt and pepper, meat right off the leg. Onions and Hatch chiles are showered atop, baked potato and a segment of corncob placed along the rim. The sandwich is stark, with chew, history, rare warmth, and deep animal flavor.

click to enlarge Pee-Posh Garden from Kai. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Pee-Posh Garden from Kai.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

Dinner at Kai

Kai Restaurant
5594 West Wild Horse Pass Boulevard, Chandler

Before the first rumor of a shutdown, I ate a meal at Kai. It’s hard to divide this meal into parts given how its ideas, ingredients, and flavors flowed, so I'll be treating it as a whole. It opened with Ramona Farms blue corn killed before harvest by frost, salvaged by chef Ryan Swanson, fried crisp, and perched in huitlacoche charged with pickled shallots. It passed from creamy bison bone marrow crème brulee to scallop sausages to octopus in a desert-glorifying sauce combining wolfberries and chiltepines to a course you only smelled and to other places near and far and finally into memory, now of what was possible in the before times.

Editor’s note: This article was updated from its original version.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy